In the 17th‐century, many young noble girls were forced into nun convents by their fathers. In 1620 Arcangela Tarabotti was forced to stay in a convent until the day she died. Tarabotti dedicated herself to writing against the mistreatment of women and argued against the misogyny of her day. She believed women, like men, possessed free will, the God‐given gift of choice. Because of this, no man has the right to dictate how women live.
Women have always made up half of the earth’s population. But despite this simple fact, for most of human history, women were forced to take a back seat while a small inner circle of men ruled over the rest. Advocating for legal, political, and moral equality between men and women is today known as Feminism. Typically Feminism is thought of as a modern idea that originated amongst the 20th‐century suffragettes and was further developed by subsequent generations of people inspired by their actions. The reality is a bit more complicated. Throughout history, women in different times, places, and cultures have argued for women’s right to equal treatment, liberty, and education.
In this episode, we will be covering the life and works of Arcangela Tarabotti, an Italian woman of the 17th‐century who was forced into a nunnery at a young age by her father to help ensure the economic stability of the Tarabotti family. Subsequently, Tarabotti never saw outside of the convent walls ever again. At the age of 16, she stepped foot in the place she would live and die. Condemned to an isolated existence, Tarabotti took advantage of the tools at her disposal, learning to read and write in Latin. Though outwardly she conformed to her convents rules, Tarabotti had decided to dedicate her life to exposing the unfairness, cruelty, and hypocrisy of men’s oppression of women. Thanks to her peculiar circumstances, Tarabotti has become a unique critic of the state, the church, and the patriarchy.
For most of human history, women have been woefully oppressed. But by Arcangela Taraboitti’s day, the status quo of misogyny was being questioned. Women’s oppression was buttressed upon the traditions of the ancient world and selective quotations from the Bible.
Greek philosophers like Aristotle associated the male sex with virtues like judgment, courage, and strength, while the female sex was indicative of vices like irrationality, cowardice, and weakness. Aristotle even went to go as far as to call women defective or mutilated males. Greek medicine grounded misogynist attitudes in science. Greek theorists believed the womb was a woman’s dominant organ and that it was the cause of women’s nature as deceitful, talkative, irrational, and hysterical. The Greek word for womb hysteria is the root of the word hysterical.
Roman society held a similar distrust towards women. Patriarchy was the unquestionable system of the Romans, with the head of a family being referred to as the paterfamilias, meaning father of the family. A pater familias wielded Patria podestas, paternal power. Pater translated to father in the sense of head of the household. This means he owned not only the household’s property but also its human members. In rare circumstances, the paterfamilias had the power even to kill his wife or children. Roman marriage placed women under the authority of a male figure. Husbands could divorce their partners on charges of adultery or even small transgressions such as drinking wine without permission. Women did not inherit their husband’s fortune; instead, it went to his male heirs, cleanly jumping over the grieved widow. The ancient world provided the intellectual ammunition and institutions required to prop up a male‐dominated world.
Misogynists scoured the Bible to support the oppression of women. To support their claims, misogynists primarily relied on two sections, the story of creation in Genesis and the Epistles defining women’s role in the church. In Genesis, God created “man in his own image.” God then created Eve from the rib of Adam. From this, theologians extrapolated that Adam being created first was symbolic of woman’s subordination to men. Genesis also contains the story of humanity’s fall from grace. Because Eve picked the fruit from the forbidden tree due to the serpent’s temptations, Eve was blamed for the misery unleashed upon all of the human species.
The Epistles of Saint Paul offers advice to the early Christian seeking to establish religious communities. Paul offered both favorable and unfavorable assessments of women. In Galatians, Paul captures egalitarian sentiments writing, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” But at the same time, Paul would also promote a more hierarchical view writing in Corinthians, “I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a woman is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.” Unlike ancient authors’ opinions, the Bible had much to offer later writers for arguments in favor of egalitarian views. After all, in the Bible, women slay tyrants, are present for the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, and of course, Mary the Virgin is chosen by God to carry Jesus.
The 14th‐century writer Christine De Pizan who was my first ever podcast episode, was one of the first authors to question this tradition of misogyny in her work entitled The Book of the City of Ladies. Here, Christine argues against the usual portrait painted of women as shallow, weak, and irrational beings by retelling stories from mythology, history, the Bible, and contemporary events to show that women are, in fact, capable of everything men can do whether it is commanding armies, writing literature, or becoming a martyr, women can do everything men can. Christine became one of the first‐ever women to earn her living through writing, and she inspired many women to question the status quo of their place in society. While many followed in Christine’s footsteps, women’s situation did not improve; they were still legally, intellectually, and physically deemed subordinate to men.
This was the cruel world that Arcangela Tarabotti was born into on February 24th 1604. However, her actual birth name was Elena Cassandra Tarabotti. She was born in Venice to Stefano Tarabotti and Maria Cadena. Elena was one of eleven children and was the eldest of seven daughters. But something about her separated her from the rest. Unlike her siblings, Elena had inherited her father’s physical disabilities and was lame. He deemed her unmarriageable due to the same limp that had not stopped him personally from siring eleven kids.
The limp may have helped make his mind, but the limp was not solely why Elena was doomed. Something much larger was at play. By the 17th‐century Venice had miraculously held its status as an independent city, garnering a reputation for liberty, virtue, and republican values. However, the harmony of Venice was built on shaky foundations. The patrician families who dominated politics had a problem, marriages. Any marriage required a dowry regardless of class or wealth. The dowry was the economic foundation upon which a new marriage was to be based upon. But for the noble patrician families, this was a big problem. To maintain their power, they had to pay for colossal dowries. But for families like the Tarabotti’s, that means seven hefty dowries, a recipe for financial ruin for the family, and a slow decline into obscurity.
You might ask why the women could instead just not marry. This was a big no‐no. If a family’s daughters did not get married, their chastity was questioned. With chastity being deemed the primary value of a woman, families did not want their names being dragged through the mud. To avoid both financial ruin and tarnishing the family name, an alternative reared its head. The only place where a woman could avoid marriage while also preventing attacks on her chastity was by joining a nun’s convent. Patrician families, afraid of losing their fortunes, forced their daughters to join nun convents, a practice that came to be known as monachization.
This practice of monachization, forcing young girls into religious orders, was surprisingly common not only in Venice but across Europe. In Venice, there were 2,500 nuns spread across 35 convents, but when one includes the Venetian convents on islands, this brings the total number of convents to at least fifty. By the 17th century, three‐fifths of patrician women in Venice were housed in convents. Tarabotti would later explain that fathers do not offer up the most beautiful and virtuous daughters to the nuns. Instead, they send off those who are lame or have some form of disability or deformity. Fathers then blame their unfortunate daughters for whatever ailments they possess and condemn them to life in the convent.
When Elena was only about 14 years old, her father forced her to take her first vows at the Benedictine convent of Sant’ Anna. By the age of sixteen, she took her four vows of poverty, chastity, obedience, and stability. She was never to own any property, have a husband or any form of relationship, and obey her superiors. The last vow of stability is incredibly depressing; Elena was expected never to leave the convent ever again and that she would even be buried on the convent grounds as a symbol of her devotion. At the age of fourteen, Elena had stepped into the place she would live, die, and rest for eternity. Upon taking her vows, Elena Tarabotti became Arcangela Tarabotti.
Though Arcangela translates to high ranking angel, Tarabotti had no intentions of conforming to convent rules. Her most egregious rebellion was her refusal to cut her hair. This culminated in a cardinal scolding Arcangela and convincing her that she would have to obey the rule and keep her criticisms to her thoughts even if she didn’t believe in the rules of the convent. Though she eventually cut her hair, Arcangela swore to herself that she would do all she could to stop families forcing young girls into convents against their will. While in the convent, Arcangela learned to read and write in Latin by continually scouring the Bible. Tarabotti found that the Bible did not support women’s subordination, and to the contrary, the Bible argued for equality among the sexes. Thanks to outside collaborators such as her brother in law Giacomo Pighetti, she was lent books from the outside world, helping her keep pace with the intellectuals of her day despite her isolation. Disobeying the rules of the convent, Tarabotti wrote letters to writers, political figures, and scientists.
Between 1620 and 1643, little of note happens in Tarabotti’s isolated life. But as the years wore on, a combination of factors made it possible for Tarabotti to share her message to the world. The city‐state of Venice had a tense relationship with the institution of the Catholic Church in Rome. By 1605 the pope pushed for greater papal power while Venice resisted any encroachment on their independence. As the situation escalated, both churchmen and Venetians published propaganda to appeal to European nations for support. Printers were able to publish all kinds of clandestine and polemical pieces against the church thanks to a newfound atmosphere of freedom of the press. During this political struggle, Tarabotti was introduced to the Academia Degli Icogniti, or in English the Academy of the Unknowns, a group of intellectual noblemen with antipapal leanings. Through her association with the academy, Tarabotti attained financial support and a web of contacts to help publish her work. Impressively her work was supported by the head of the academy Giovanni Francesco Loredan.
Tarabotti’s first published work, Convent Life as Paradise, was published in 1643, 23 years after Tarabotti had joined the convent. Here, Tarabotti praises those who enter the convent due to a religious calling while condemning forcing young girls with no religious aspirations to join the nuns’ ranks. This work lacked radicalism, but it established Tarabotti’s status as a writer.
Tarabotti’s next project was the anonymously published work Antisatire, released in 1644. Antisatire responded to Francesco Buoninsegni of Siena, who wrote a tract called Against Women’s Luxury, Menippean Satire. Here, Francesco ridiculed women for their apparent excessive love of clothes, hairstyles, and trinkets. Tarabotti replied by applying Francesco’s standards both to men and women, arguing that men, similarly to women, obsessed over their fancy lace collars, padded stockings, and wigs. Both sexes indulge in an excessive love of expensive fashion. Tarabotti argued that women are excluded from education and are artificially made ignorant. For Tarabotti, this lack of education is the root of why women are oppressed by men because, without sufficient education, Tarabotti said women “do not know how to defend themselves, nor do they want to.”
Tarabotti’s final work, published in her lifetime in 1651, was given the lengthy title of Women Do Belong to the Species of Mankind, A Defense of Women. Under the pseudonym of Galerana Barciotti, Tarabotti attempts to refute the arguments of an Italian translation of a tract called Women Do Not Belong to the Species Mankind An Amusing Speech. This tract made the argument through scripture to prove women lack a rational soul, meaning they cannot make moral decisions and thus cannot attain salvation in the next life. Tarabotti dissects the tract’s argument with an exacting vigilance showing how the author is selectively quoting scripture and relying on the reader’s ignorance.
Tarabotti’s personal letters show us that she was doggedly determined to publish her works despite the numerous obstacles in the way of women publishing at a time when intellectual discussions were thought to be solely inhabited by men. Despite her miserable life, Tarabotti’s writings gave her suffering a purpose. She would write to her best friend that her writings are “the most precious things I have.”
Tarabotti viewed one of her earliest works Paternal Tyranny as her magnum opus. Though this work was not published during her life, the manuscript was copied and circulated amongst radical intellectual circles. Tarabotti received feedback from her many contacts and tweaked Paternal Tyranny to respond to her reader’s criticisms over the years. Paternal Tyranny is Tarabotti’s most extensive and radical attacks on the trifecta of the state, church, and patriarchy, which conspire together to keep women under the thumb of men. Though the central message of Paternal Tyranny is a tirade against forced monachization and the oppressions of the patriarchy, Tarabotti also discusses the psychological torment girls forced to be nuns endure, a feminist rereading of the Bible, and an assertion of women’s inalienable rights to equality, liberty, and education.
Tarabotti was well aware of the criticisms usually levelled at any female writer who complained of women’s oppression. They were generally accused of relying on the reader’s susceptibility to pity. They did not make forceful arguments but instead merely manipulated men through their emotional language. Tarabotti thus does not rely on pity. She avoids discussing her personal life in much detail and instead opts for a more aloof tone despite the deeply personal connection she had to the topic at hand. Tarabotti understood that to have any real effect on the practice of monachization, she had to focus her attack not on poorly acting individuals but the system as a whole. Though like feminists today, her attacks on male behavior do not qualify as sexism against men because, as Tarabotti explained: “I condemn men’s vices, not man himself.” Tarabotti did not hate men; she hated the system that they upheld, a point many feminists throughout history have been forced to stress.
Tarabotti’s title of Paternal Tyranny is not just for show. It forms the core of her argument that the current relationship between men and women resemble a tyrant lording over a slave, with men being the tyrants and women taking the role of the slave. Contemporary Venetians took great pride in the absence of tyranny in their political system. But Tarabotti explains that each man who forces his daughter into a convent acts like a tyrant. They selfishly pursue their own interests, by forcing their daughter into a convent, they secure their luxuries at the expense of their daughter’s freedom. Because of their enormous and unchecked power over women, men’s desires become excessive and destructive. Lastly, many men are tyrants because they thwart women’s free will. Despite Venice’s reputation for liberty, Tarabotti shows the reader that Venice is home to many petty tyrants who prey on their own families of all people.
Tarabotti believes that the sexes’ current inequality is not natural; it has been established through generations of restrictive customs and traditions that forced women into a position of subordination. Tarabotti argues that the Bible expresses that women like men receive from God the gift of free will to decide how to live their lives. Tarabotti writes that “Divine Providence created both Adam and Eve in a state of innocence with choice and free will.” Tarabotti refers to free will as “a matchless gift.” Thus when men send their daughters to convents, they not only ruin their daughter’s lives but attack the foundations of their humanity, their free will. Tarabotti writes of monachization, “what an unforgiveable error, what a wicked decision, and what sheer audacity is this deed when Divine Providence, after all, has granted free will to His creatures, whether male or female, and bestowed on both sexes intellect, memory, and will!”
According to Tarabotti’s reading of the Bible, God intended that man and woman should be a partnership of equals. Tarabotti affirms this writing that God “did not wish anything from them without their common consent.” During the Renaissance, many writers believed in male superiority. Many countered by matching their opponent’s extremism by arguing that women were superior to men to match their intense misogyny. With both sides taking up either end of the extreme of either male or female supremacy, writers like Tarabotti, who argued for equality, stood out as unique because she said: “Both male and female were born free, bearing with them, like a precious gift from God, the priceless bounty of free choice.”
But if women had an inalienable right to liberty and were equal to men according to the Bible, how did the present situation where women are anything but equal arise? Tarabotti answers that men have secured their position by stunting the intellectual growth of women. Tarabotti explains that men are to blame. Because they fear women becoming their equals, they do all in their power to stop women from educating themselves. So much so that Tarabotti writes that: “As soon as you men catch sight of a woman with pen in hand, you start ranting and raving.” By making women ignorant, men can claim a false superiority over them. Tarabotti argues women’s intellect is not stunted “not through lack of native intelligence, but lack of schooling.” Men say education would cause women to lose their chastity, and thus, they must stay ignorant for their own good.
By denying women the opportunity of education, Tarabotti argued that men “seduced the whole world into believing that women must be excluded from ruling.” Unlike her predecessors, who mostly articulated women’s moral equality, Tarabotti when one step further by arguing women should rule alongside men. Many theologians believed God had told Adam he shall rule over Eve, and thus men will rule over women. Tarabotti thought that God did not tell Adam he would rule over women. Instead, both men and women are naturally free; they each have from God “the priceless bounty of free choice.”
Tarabotti never lived to see her magnum opus Paternal Tyranny published. Paternal Tyranny was not an easy book to publish. It attacked the church, the state, and the traditional values of female subjection. As the years wore on, Tarabotti’s bitterness towards her life long imprisonment did not fade. She wrote that her life in the convert was “a hell where no hope of exiting can enter.” Tarabotti died on February 28th in 1652, at the age of 48. Her death was caused by tuberculosis. Though she had made numerous attempts during her life to publish Paternal Tyranny, it was only after her death that it was published in 1654 under a pseudonym two years after her death. By 1660 the church’s attention turned towards Paternal Tyranny. By 1660, Paternal Tyranny was placed under the Index of Prohibited Books by the Catholic Church for its attacks upon the church’s reputation. Following her death, Arcangela Tarabotti became an obscure name, only cropping up occasionally in later collections. By the 20th‐century, Tarabotti began to resurface amongst academics impressed by her peculiar story and forward‐thinking demands for equality amongst the sexes.
Arcangela Tarabotti should be a figure libertarians respect. Understanding she was already doomed to life inside the convent walls until she died, Tarabotti dedicated herself to defending women’s status as rational beings endowed with free will, which gave them the right to determine how they would live. Tarabotti in Paternal Tyranny is one of the first thinkers to think of women’s unequal relation to men as a form of political injustice. In Tarabotti’s day, it was understood men had absolute authority over women. Some will act kindly towards their female subjects, while others will be selfish. Tarabotti was not arguing that men in power lack kindness and ought to stop being selfish; she argued that any infringement on a woman’s liberty was a moral crime, whether it was by a kind of selfish patriarch. Tarabotti believed there was a moral duty to resist women’s subjection, which is arbitrary and illegitimate. The proto‐feminist writings of Tarabotti set the foundations for later feminists to affirm the rights and liberty of all women across the globe. For this, she deserves recognition as a champion of women’s rights and the most defiant nun ever who criticized the church, the state, and the patriarchy all at once.